Monday, October 18, 2010

Sec'y Down-Ballot on the Dow-Low

Semi-mirabile dictu! For a half of a miracle yesterday, the elusive, reclusive Secretary of the Commonwealth appeared and spoke...just not at the same time and place as his two opponents.

The League of Women Voter of Newton truly tried to host a Dagwood sandwich of local and down-ballot statewide candidates yesterday at Lasell College, Secretary Bill Galvin was a no-show, as was AG-would-be Republican James McKenna. However, Secretary candidates the GOP's Bill Campbell and independent Jim Henderson held forth, disagreeing civilly.

With only a few weekends in the last month, the inevitable conflict occurred. The Democratic and Republican Town Committees of Hanson and Whitman scheduled their candidates' afternoon on the same day and time. Hence a half miracle in Hanson.

Galvin apparently decided he could ask to be first up in Hanson at 3, knowing his opponents were at the quasi-debate in Newton. He still won't debate, but he did appear, so I hear.

The kindly folk at Whitman Hanson Community Access TV recorded their version, replete with the Galvin sighting. They don't yet have their online video server (soon, soon), but promised to provide a disk. I'll report.

Meanwhile in the arena, Henderson and Campbell gave and took well. They are pleasant fellows. They share some goals for the office, but they have more differences than similarities, which they clarified yesterday.

As for Galvin, his campaign website reminds me of a hymn of my youth, from the Gloria Patri, with the lines, "As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be..."

It is very out-of-date, contains no platform, list of accomplishments or other reasons to re-elect him for another for four years. More important, it gives nothing to analyze or criticize. It simply states that he is Secretary of the Commonwealth, and that's that, all you need to know.

His strategy of no debating and not giving the public or opponents a visible target might well win again. While candidates for the other major down-ballot races, Treasurer and Auditor, are fierce and frequent in their public encounters and pronouncements, they have the huge incentive lacking in the Secretary context — no incumbent. Their battles are for a yet-unknown someone to be king or queen of the hill, with no one there to defend it.

At Lasell, Galvin appeared only as a ghost. Moderator Risa Nynam of LMV Brookline passed along his line with a straight face. She said he could not appear because of a scheduling conflict. She never mentioned that it was of his own making and intent.

For their part Campbell in his intro and Henderson in passing noted Galvin's absence. The former said he was disappointed and "the voters deserve better."

Here, I must give an abbreviated version of my anti-forum rant. Let us not confuse these tightly time- and content-controlled pieces of theater with debates. This is the pre-chewed food of politics. Candidates are herded down their chutes with a few questions and given short periods to deal with often complex topics. Then each gets an even shorter time for additional comment, jocularly called "rebuttal," as though it was real exposition.

Yesterday, being an LWV event, it was even more tightly controlled than a TV or radio version. The first two office contests were cancelled for lack of an opponent. Moreover, both Campbell and Henderson were well in advance of their 3 p.m. showtime. The League could well have started at 2:30 or so and say, "We have a gift of extra time and will give the candidates additional room to answer and ask each other questions."

Well, no. The League is schoolmarmish in the main and its members often quite literal in what they insist is evenhandedness. It wouldn't do to treat one set of candidates the slightest bit different from the next. Even if the voters would benefit from the extra information and opinions, that wouldn't be fair now, would it?

So, for their parts, the Secretary candidates remained amiable, even as their positions clashed. I am sure that they could have a beer and personal conversation, even without President Obama's facilitation.

He said he said

Same-day-registration. This brought a yeah and a nay. Henderson is a strong believer in election-day voter registration and Campbell firmly opposes it. Henderson says the under-50% MA voter turnout is appalling, that this would encourage more voters, and that fraud is between minuscule and non-existent. Campbell is Woburn town clerk and holds that we need zero tolerance for even the slightest potential of fraud. He did not respond to Henderson's comment that he did not know of a single MA clerk who had uncovered fraud.

Early voting. Henderson would like to see a longer voting period, as many states have, allowing citizens to go to government offices and vote in the week or two before the final day. Campbell sort of agreed, but said he would prefer to try to move elections to a Saturday for greater voter convenience. (Neither mentioned religious sorts who have issues with Saturday travel.)

Military ballots. Both agreed that MA needs to come into compliance with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, requiring that registered voters in the armed services get their ballots at least 45 days before elections. Campbell took the chance to note that Galvin's office did not do this and said it was because the Secretary had not made it plain to the legislature that it was necessary. Both candidates agreed that switching the primary to an August date, perhaps early in the month, would do the trick and cost the public nothing additional.

Public access to public information. Henderson has campaigned strongly on bringing the office into this century in terms of using data bases and computer technologies. He noted that other states let citizens get such online information as whether someone claiming to be a registered security dealer actually is. He pointed out that here one is to call the Secretary's office during normal business hours and get that information orally from an employee. He called for a simple Google-style search of the public information. Campbell was spongier with this topic, agreeing though that the public information laws were vague and confusing, leaving government employees unsure of what data they could share upon request. Henderson said the proper approach would be to put all databases not precluded by law online and let the citizens determine what is useful and necessary, an open-data initiative, as he put it.

ID from everyone. They differed on whether people should have to show ID every time they vote. Campbell returned to his theme of preventing even the slightest possibility of voter fraud and strongly favored everyone showing ID every time. Henderson drew attention to the elderly, homeless and others with out such standard proofs as current driver's license or utility bill. He returned to his theme that fraud is not a real problem and we would be inconveniencing many for no benefit. He also has the position that creating or buying fake ID is common, as we see among thirsty teenagers. He asked would we want to equip each of over 2,000 polling places with equipment to verify ID, at $1,000 or more each?

Securities enforcement. Campbell used this topic to criticize Galvin's office for what he said was an "overemphasis" and a hostile policy. Henderson noted that this policing might be distracting the Secretary's staff from more important tasks, such as safeguarding personal citizen data and not repeating the release of key private information of many thousands of us as happened several times.

Voter turnout. This sounded very much like a progressive v. conservative split. Campbell said voters are responsible for registering to vote on time, another reason why he opposes election-day registration. Henderson said Galvin had not grown turnout and not made any effort to find out why voters do not show. He added that he would make it a priority to visit throughout the state to discover the underlying issues and see what could be done to increase participation. Again, Campbell returned to, "I don't think we should do anything to open the door to fraud." However, he did suggest we shorten the registration period from the current 20 days to 10.

In their sprint of a one-minute closing statements, Campbell said he had the skills and experience and would make the office "more responsive in many ways." Henderson said he offered the overdue "chance to change the very nature of the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office" and to get citizens more fully engaged in democracy.

Gratuitous comments

These LWV's functions do provide a kick, perhaps in my case, puerilely so. Advancing the democratic process, exposing citizens to pols' positions, and trying to increase voter participation are very noble and very American. Must the League's methods be so literal and rigid?

Some little touches yesterday reminded me of junior high. See the light bulb array above. The timer lady who sat below the stage where the moderator and candidates would see the all-important green, yellow and red lights seemed to have an amateurish science project on her little table.

The lights were in fake gold bathroom vanity sockets. a honking thick, rope of wire harness connected the array to a huge switch box with three wall-style light toggles, also color coded.

The timer and moderator were mindlessly efficient. Not only was there scant time for the candidates (1 minute for opening, 90 seconds for each to answer the prepared question, 30 seconds for each to follow up if he chose), but the moderator cut candidates off in mid-sentence and in several cases mid-word. Of course that short changed the audience, but this clearly was a rules-are-rules bunch.

Incidentally, only about 18 showed in the massive auditorium. I had the sense we were all family, friends or reporter types, again like junior high plays. However, Newton cable TV (NewTV) video recorded. At some point, ideally before the election, this session and others from the day should be available. If I find out details, I'll update this post and create an additional one.

That presents another amusing piece of LWV's drama. They and maybe NewTV allowed no photography, voice recording or video recording during this allegedly public session. In addition, Nyman announced sternly, when the recording becomes available, anyone presenting it must show it in its entirety, no editing or shortening.

Sit up straight, don't chew gum, and pass your homework up the row to the front of the class!

Despite the League's anal-retentive bent, I strongly suggest attending their events as you can. Particularly candidate presentations are often one of the few chances you'll get to hear them, even if debating is out of question. I suppose the LWV has joined our broadcast media in assuming we are all creatures of little brains and short attention spans.

Thursday Update: WHCA send a DVD and I report on Galvin's appearance here.

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